Explosive new reports that Russia offered bounties to Afghan militants to kill U.S. and coalition forces are creating new fissures between the White House and its Republican allies on Capitol Hill.
Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Monday that he demanded an immediate briefing from top Pentagon officials on the intelligence but had not heard back from the agency. Thornberry, who is retiring after this fall’s elections, called the White House statement that President Donald Trump was not briefed on the reported intelligence “very concerning.”
“I don’t know what the intelligence says, but if there were bounties put on—‘We’ll pay you so much if you kill an American’—I think that is a different level from providing weapons,” Thornberry said. “It is so egregious that if, in my view, if there were a hint of credibility to it, then you need to bring it to the president’s attention and there needs to be a plan on what you’re going to do about it.”
Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have pushed for an aggressive response to reporting from the New York Times and other outlets that indicated that Trump had been briefed on the information in March and had taken no action. The revelations stand poised to worsen already strained relations between Washington and Moscow despite repeated efforts from the president to improve bilateral ties. While Republican lawmakers have been reluctant to run afoul of Trump in past policy disagreements, they have pushed the administration to take a hard-line approach to Russia, including passing sweeping sanctions legislation on Russia in 2017 with veto-proof majorities.
Trump and other top administration officials initially downplayed the New York Times report, dismissing the story as inaccurate. In a tweet on Sunday night, Trump himself said the U.S. intelligence community reported to him over the weekend “they did not find this info credible” and did not previously report it to the White House. “Possibly another fabricated Russia Hoax, maybe by the Fake News @nytimesbooks, wanting to make Republicans look bad!!!” Trump added. But by Monday morning, the White House appeared to bow to mounting pressure for answers from Capitol Hill and scheduled a briefing for House Republican lawmakers at the White House, Politico reported.
Rep. Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican Conference, said in a Twitter statement that the White House must explain why the president and vice president weren’t briefed, whether the information was in the president’s daily brief, who knew about these intelligence assessments and when, and what has been done to protect U.S. forces and “hold Putin accountable.”
Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Republican chair of the powerful armed services panel who attended the president’s controversial rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last week, also called on the administration to “share what it knows” about the intelligence.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, also demanded a briefing for the House from top U.S. intelligence officials. “The questions that arise are: was the President briefed, and if not, why not, and why was Congress not briefed. Congress and the country need answers now,” she wrote in a letter to CIA Director Gina Haspel and Trump’s new director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe. “I therefore request an interagency brief for all House Members immediately. Congress needs to know what the intelligence community knows about this significant threat to American troops and our allies and what options are available to hold Russia accountable.”
Speaking at the White House on Monday, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany downplayed the findings, saying there was “no consensus” in the intelligence community on the use of Russian bounties to incentivize the targeting of American troops, meaning the issue was not elevated to the president’s daily brief. David Priess, who served as a daily intelligence briefer during presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush said having consensus across the intelligence community on items in the brief “has not traditionally been a requirement” for including information for the president.
Richard Grenell, who temporarily served as acting director of national intelligence until May, said he had never heard of this intelligence assessment in a statement on Twitter responding to criticism from Democratic Rep. Ted Lieu. “I never heard this. And it’s disgusting how you continue to politicize intelligence,” he wrote. “You clearly don’t understand how raw intel gets verified. Leaks of partial information to reporters from anonymous sources is dangerous because people like you manipulate it for political gain.”
The unit of Russia’s foreign military intelligence service, the GRU, which is reported to have spearheaded the Afghan operation, has played a leading role in Russia’s efforts to destabilize Western countries, from efforts to orchestrate a coup in Montenegro in 2016 to the attempted assassination of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in 2018. Individual operatives within the GRU’s Unit 29155, which U.S. intelligence allegedly pointed to as being behind the bounties, have been identified by open-source investigators with the research collective Bellingcat. “The U.S. clearly has a lot of sufficient intelligence on this unit and its personnel,” said Michael Weiss, a reporter who is currently working on a book about the history of the GRU.
The New York Times reported that the discovery of large amounts of U.S. dollars in a Taliban hideout and interrogation of militants were central in informing U.S. intelligence reporting of the Russian plot. Given that identities of several members of Unit 29155 are already well known to Western intelligence agencies, Weiss said it was highly likely that U.S. intelligence agencies were able to cross-reference the operatives’ movements with that of the Taliban militants.
But while the Trump administration has held in place sanctions against Russia and slapped erstwhile allies, such as Turkey, on the wrist for investing in Russian defense programs, some former administration officials saw the report as another sign of danger in the president’s personal coziness and praise for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
In a meeting with Putin in Helsinki in 2018, Trump suggested he believed the Russian president’s denials that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential elections, undercutting conclusions from the U.S. intelligence community. He later walked those comments back.
John Sipher, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, said that it was “inconceivable” that Putin would have been unaware of the offer to the Taliban.
“From my time in CIA, it was very clear that he was intimately involved and signing off on anything that could blow back on the Kremlin – namely assassinations, support to violent groups and paramilitary action,” said Sipher, who ran Russia operations for the CIA in Moscow.
“Certainly, some people have over-hyped his influence and treat him like some sort of master chess player making all the moves,” he said. “However, when it comes to the intelligence services, he is acting as the de facto Director.”
Late last month, Trump called for Russia to return to the G-7 in a September summit, and he told Putin of his plans to invite Moscow to rejoin the club of major economies it was booted out of after annexing Crimea in 2014. The suggestion prompted backlash from close U.S. allies in Europe, and U.S. officials who served under Trump say the White House should take that offer off the table.
“Russia is an enemy of the United States. We identify them as such in our national security strategy, but treat them as if they are allies,” said Mick Mulroy, a former Pentagon and CIA official who is now an ABC News national security analyst. “Why else would we be pushing to include a country in the G8 that invaded another and is now killing our soldiers.”
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